For a class at Nashville Ballet, wheelchairs don’t stop kids from dancing — they’re part of the dance.
The Rejoice School of Ballet is partnering with Nashville Ballet’s adaptive dance program this weekend and next, bringing to life a beloved children’s story of heroic perseverance: The Little Engine That Could.
Choreographer Gerald Watson based the production on a fairytale made popular in a book by Watty Piper. The book is known for the little engine’s mantra: “I think I can. I think I can.” With a score created from popular classical character pieces, like “Carnival of the Animals,” the dancers portray all the engines and toys stuck at the bottom of a mountain.
During a recent rehearsal, lead dancer Lani Martinez practices hitting her mark, turning right in front of a piece of tape on the floor.
But Lani is a little different than most ballerinas because she lands her turn in her motorized wheelchair.
This is where the adaptation comes in. Lani is dancing in her chair. The chair just gets her from place to place as she moves her feet.
“I will go step, step, I’ll go high, and I’ll go step, step, high, step,” she says.
She moves alongside other dancers from Rejoice, matching their blocking and speed. Rejoice founder Patricia Cross says collaborating with dancers who work adaptively for the performance fits right in with the company’s goal to be all-inclusive.
“We have this amazing diversity of races, cultures and economic situations, so I’m thrilled that we could do this,” she says.
The choreographer agrees.
“We like to reach out to everyone and give everybody an opportunity to be part of what’s going on and to experience a love of the performing arts,” Watson says, “especially dance.”
Watson is a Nashville Ballet Company Member who works with both Rejoice and the adaptive dance program. Both programs break barriers to entry in ballet: Rejoice takes away financial hurdles for students with a sliding fee scale, and adaptive dance creates a space for kids previously sidelined by movement limitations.
According to Watson, Lani’s precision has been inspirational to the Rejoice company throughout the rehearsal process.
“She’s bringing her A-game every single time. So now they have to as well to keep it up.”
And will she hit that mark this weekend? Lani thinks she can.
Rejoice School of Ballet presents “The Little Engine That Could” Feb. 21-23, 28-29, and March 1 at the 4th Story Theater at West End United Methodist Church. This story was produced in partnership with Nashville Public Radio’s 91Classical.